A Teachable Moment

By David Shadovitz, Editor

There's been no shortage of books over the years on the subject of innovation, yet many companies continue to fall short when it comes to making it part of their culture and DNA.

We've all heard the phrase "innovate or die," right? Sadly, far too many organizations have given credence to that message. Remember Borders? Blockbuster? Kodak? (Sure, the last of the three is still around, but today is only a fraction of its former size.)

Because innovation is (and always will be) a business imperative, I was interested to hear what Google's former Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock had to say on the subject as the opening keynoter at last month's HR Tech Conference. (See our full report on page 18.)

As Bock pointed out, innovation is not about creating "skunkworks" facilities, giving ambitious "moonshot" goals or showering top performers with handsome bonuses. In fact, he said, these approaches can often be counterproductive.

Instead, he explained, it needs to be more about connecting people to their business' mission, tapping intrinsic motivators by giving people greater control over their work and building a portfolio of both "moonshots" and "roof shots" -- the latter being more mundane but vital everyday projects.

(As an aside, Bock left Google last year and is in the process of launching a company that aims to "make work better." The company, Humu, is currently in stealth mode -- so we'll have to wait to see where it falls on the innovation scale.)

In his talk, Bock shared six ways to boost and sustain innovation (including those that I referred to earlier). But for purposes of this column, I'd like to focus on one in particular: eliminating the fear to fail.

Bock described the fear of failure as "a huge de-motivator."

"If you want learning and innovation to happen, you have to be able to tolerate and learn from failure," he said, noting that managers at Google X (the company's research lab) go so far as to hand out a quarterly award for the "biggest failure."

Of course, the need to learn from failure can apply to pretty much every department, team or individual in the organization. But I think it is especially relevant to the HR function itself.

As a profession, HR has historically been risk averse -- and for good reason. One serious slip-up could set off a legal land mine, resulting in a seven-figure judgment or settlement.

Yet while it's prudent for HR leaders to tread carefully on matters involving compliance, I think they would be making a mistake were they to allow such a mind-set to creep into and strangle HR's own ability to innovate.

Walking the expo floor and sitting in on sessions at the HR Tech Conference, I was reminded that innovation is very much alive and well in certain parts of the profession. Take, for example, technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing, which are beginning to gain traction and demonstrate their potential in functions such as recruiting and benefits.

HR innovation, however, isn't just about technology. It encompasses everything the function does to recruit talent, create a better employee experience, foster increased engagement, deliver greater value to the enterprise, and so on.

When all is said and done, I believe the HR leaders who will be in the best position to move the needle in these (and other) business-critical areas will be those who are willing to experiment and take at least some degree of risk. Not those who are guided by the fear of not succeeding.

No one wants to fail, of course. Who doesn't want to succeed at everything he or she did? But there's good reason why Bock and other leadership experts remind us from time to time that failure isn't something that should be feared. Rather, because it presents us with  teachable moments, it should be something HR and other business leaders fully embrace and leverage.

It's a message that everyone in the organization should pay heed to. But I think HR leaders, in particular, would be wise to take it to heart.

Nov 7, 2017
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